59. Does God Possess a Specific Name and Form?

Lord Krishna and Arjuna

by Jayaram V

Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V

Summary: A few thoughts on how Brahman (God) should be worshipped or approached, and whether he has a specific name and form.

All this (creation) is threefold, name, form and action. Of them, with regard to names, speech is the source because all names arise from speech only. It makes them similar; it, indeed, is the same for all names. For them it is their Brahman because it supports all names. (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.6.1).

Hinduism contains in itself diverse beliefs and practices. Hence, it is broader and inclusive in its approach to many speculative aspects of religion such as truth, knowledge, God, reality and existence. This is not to suggest that it is a virtue in itself, since people who are conditioned to the polarities of life and generalizations may find it difficult to cope with its diversity and complexity. Because Hinduism is a collection of diverse faiths and philosophies, it is difficult to generalize its beliefs and practices without ignoring the exceptions.

Popular Hinduism is the current answer to the complexity of historical Hinduism. Under this label you can conveniently ignore many of its facets and focus upon just a few which will help you sustain your faith and continue your ritual and spiritual practices, without unduly burdening your mind with complex ideas and contradictions. In popular Hinduism, you will find the abstract forms and notions of God reduced into concrete and definitive forms and hold them to be true to keep the mind focused. You may also hold them as the true representations of God and worship him with devotion.

However, such a simplistic approach may appeal to the dull minds, but it does not satisfy the curious and inquisitive minds, who prefer to explore the subject of God in greater depth and speculate upon his essential nature and functions. In Hinduism, God has always been an enigma to the inquisitive minds who are not satisfied with the usual answers. The subject of God or Brahman attracted the curiosity of countless seers, sages, renunciants and hermits, while priests and householders traditionally preoccupied themselves with the worship of devas and performance of sacrificial rituals. The dichotomy still exists in contemporary Hinduism.

The Vedic seers speculated upon the nature of Brahman, but kept an open mind about his nature and form. They called him “That” to denote his transcendence, indefinability, otherness and distinction from “This” or this world. At the same time, they did not limit him to an objectified truth. Since Brahman was everything, This as well as That, they envisioned him as a multidimensional reality, comprehensible to the human mind in some limited aspects, but incomprehensible outside the realm of the mind and the senses.

They found him to be both Being and Non-being, existence and nonexistence, known and unknown, with form and without form, with names and without names, and so on. In their contemplative states and devotional supplications, they addressed the Being with specific names, attributes, qualities and descriptions, and used appropriate visual, verbal and nonverbal symbols to represent his immensity, universality, lordship, prowess and complexity.

The word, God or Brahman or Isvara, invokes different images and impressions in different people according to their knowledge, desires and essential nature. Yet, everyone who does so know that the form or the idea of God which they entertain in their minds is a projection, not an absolute reality. God is an infinite, indescribable, incomprehensible and transcendental reality. When you define him, or give him a distinct personality, you also limit that reality, unless you do so with the understanding that it is your creation and cannot be held as a universal truth.

Occasionally you come across people who dispute the notion that God is impersonal and formless. According to them God cannot be impersonal or formless. For them, God is personal and possesses specific, recognizable form, which is permanent and universal. Their conviction is so strong that they may respond aggressively if you try to oppose their view. They are doctrinally rigid in their opinion and seem to ignore the statements found in the Vedas, Tantras and numerous other texts and philosophical schools, which described Brahman as both invisible and visible, manifested (sambhutam) and unmanifested (asambhutam), known and unknown, with form (murtam) and without form (amurtam) and with attributes (saguna) and without attributes (Nirguna). For them, the God without form and attributes cannot be known. Hence, for all practical purposes he is nonexistent, and it is futile to worship him or think of him.

The truth is that God is indefinable and indeterminate. You cannot simply reduce him into an objectified, limited truth, except for the limited purpose of worshipping him or communicating with him. In the Bhagavadgita itself Lord Krishna informs Arjuna that it is difficult to worship the formless God because the mind cannot be stabilized in his contemplation. Any form or image belongs to the perceptual field. We know its existence because of the mind and senses. Without the senses, the form can neither be perceived nor cognized. The Vedas state that God is subtle and transcendental and beyond the mind and senses. Then how can the senses perceive him and ascertain his form or his qualities?

This does not mean that one cannot worship the objectified God. Hinduism allows the worshippers to worship ritually the images and forms of God or mentally contemplate upon his envisioned forms as a transformative practice. Hinduism is neither a monotheistic nor a polytheistic religion. It falls somewhere in between. In Hinduism, all the deities are Brahman only in their highest aspect. You have the choice to worship them as forms of Brahman or as independent deities. As the Bhagavadgita declares, whoever worships Brahman reaches him only, and whoever worships others, not as Brahman but as independent gods, will reach them only. In other words, it is your choice, karma and spiritual destiny, which determine your progress on the path of liberation.

There are some who argue that Lord Krishna is the Supreme Lord, and every other deity is subordinate to him. Those who hold this view have the freedom to do so. However, they cannot insist that everyone should follow the same. For most people, Lord Krishna is not “the God,” but a representation, incarnation or manifestation of Brahman. One may worship him as a manifested form of Brahman, but cannot insist that Brahman or other deities should be ignored or treated as subordinate. The original Vedas and Upanishads do not speak of Lord Krishna. They speak of Brahman only as the Supreme Self and absolute truth. Lord Krishna himself referred to Brahman as the Supreme Self in the Bhagavadgita several times. From the scripture you can infer that Lord Krishna was the visible deity and Brahman, the hidden deity. Outwardly, Lord Krishna was the teacher, but inwardly the source was Brahman. The discourse (speech) came out of Krishna, but as the Vedas affirm, the source of that speech, as every speech, was Brahman only.

As an incarnation and in the unified state of oneness, Lord Krishna spoke for Brahman and as Brahman. Whenever he spoke in the first person (“I”) as Brahman it was because his identity was completely merged in him, and he was in the unified state of pure consciousness, without duality and distinction. Only those who have experienced oneness at the highest level without duality, or who understand what it truly means because of their purified buddhi (discernment), know that this truth.

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